As he reached for the phone on the bedside table at 3:30 in the morning, Garth had little doubt it was his brother calling.
“Garth, he’s gone.” Henry sounded exhausted.
Garth and Henry’s father suffered six weeks on a ventilator, an experience he obviously detested. Every time Henry asked the doctors to take him off the device and to allow him to die, he received a lecture about the sanctity of life, remarkable recoveries, and the miracles of modern medicine. Henry never believed a word of it, but his vigil had depleted him, and he had lacked the stamina to argue with the precepts doctors apparently embraced and mindlessly recited to family members as a facile litany.
“I’ll head to the airport and catch the first flight I can.” Garth paused, then asked, “Anything else right now?”
“No. I’ll wait to make any arrangements until you’re here.”
At the airport, Garth discovered that the only available seat on the next flight to Miami was in first-class. Sitting in the deluxe cabin, Garth gagged on stomach acid as it erupted into his esophagus. Somehow, the luxury of the first-class cabin made him feel all the more guilty about the relief he felt in learning of his father’s death.
Garth tried to convince himself that his guilt was unfounded. After his father’s first month on the ventilator, Garth realized a person could remain in a sedated, semiconscious, machine-supported existence for an unspeakably long period of time. Even if his father recovered from the fluid flooding maliciously within his body, he would undoubtedly be sent to a nursing home, a place he made clear he never wanted to be. Garth really had no selfish reason for wishing his father to die, but wishing death for anyone is a formidable proposition.
Gagging as he tried to swallow more refluxing stomach acid, Garth sensed an insurgent anger emerging within him. If only he could be passive, even detached, and simply show up at the funeral, then walk away. But Garth had never played such a role in the family, and certainly, as a lawyer, it would fall to him to clean up the almost inevitable chaos of his father’s financial affairs.
Nathan Hollingsworth, the sire of Garth and Henry, enjoyed a lengthy career of investing in absurdly curious businesses. While never actually shady, his enterprises operated far beyond the mainstream of commerce. He always looked for an obscure niche, something unproven, a scheme that demanded a pioneering spirit. Never elegant or simple, his businesses always required a lengthy description to understand, and undoubtedly, that’s one thing he liked about them. He could talk about them endlessly with the flare of a swashbuckling capitalist.
Hollingsworth’s entrepreneurial endeavors ranged from the improbable to the ridiculous, but none was quite as far-fetched as a service he once provided to homeowners who wished to discourage burglaries by renting menacing dogs to sit on their property. Pursuant to a business plan with superficial merit, clients would rent a German Shepherd to sit on their front lawn for an hour or two, three days a week, in order to discourage the any malfeasant who was scouting homes for break-ins. On at least one level, the business was quite successful. None of Hollingsworth’s clients experienced a burglary, but they did experience dog bites, lawns filled with German Shepherd excrement, and alienation from their neighbors. The business faced insurmountable challenges as he attempted to enlarge the scale of the enterprise. With two dogs, it was a profitable hobby. As an authentic, self-sustaining business with sixteen canines, most of whom did not get along with one another, the enterprise descended into a bedlam of unanticipated calamities, leaving Hollingsworth with a pack of unruly dogs and countless lawsuits.
As Hollingsworth entered his eighties, his entrepreneurial energy primarily involved schemes for gaming the stock market. Not surprisingly, Hollingsworth developed several intricate, is not byzantine, systems to which he gave exotic names such as, “Seasonal Maximization Plus,” “Counterintuitive Impulse Buying,” “Bertha’s Big Grab It Now Theory,” the last system being named for his mother. When the schemes were working well, Hollingsworth proudly sent copies of his brokerage statements to Garth, but for the last ten months, Garth had received no financial information from his father. He hoped his instincts were unfounded, but based on prior periods of financial incommunicado, Garth was certain that even Big Bertha had been failing.
Standing side-by-side at the luggage carousel, Garth and Henry did their best to console one another, which primarily involved monosyllabic utterances and repetitive nodding. Both were certain their father would have wished to be taken off the ventilator long ago, but it was Henry, now retired, who assumed the responsibility of negotiating with the physicians. He assured Garth he had implored the hospital staff to spare their father further suffering, and not envying his brother at all, Garth felt grateful that he had not been called upon to advocate for his father’s death. The burden of merely wishing for it was more than enough.
With Henry driving their father’s Mercedes from the airport toward Hollingsworth’s condominium, both brothers started to weep—not openly, but enough to require use of the strategically placed box of Kleenex in the center console. Each had a very different relationship with their father and each was close to him in a different way.
Hollingsworth treated Henry as an adult much the same way he treated him as a child. Neither outgrew the patterns established early in life, and Henry learned to enjoy the role of the son who depended upon his father’s largess. Henry never bought a new car because his father would always give him an automobile after he had driven it for a year or two. Never having sufficient savings to buy anything of any consequence, Henry would often borrow money from his father knowing full well the loan would never be collected. They would take trips together involving activities Garth eschewed. Garth was not a gambler, a golfer, fishermen or a hunter, and he never participated in his father’s and brother’s junkets.
Early in life, Garth yearned for independence from both of his parents as each tried to cling tightly to him and control him as a final vestige of their failing marriage. After he left for college, he never returned home for more than a few days’ visit. Later in life, he and his father developed an authentic adult relationship with Hollingsworth often depending upon Garth’s legal talents to repair or salvage a situation that had turned out to be unfortunate or even ugly. Consequently, as adults they developed a closeness they never had when Garth was a child even if the hierarchy became inverted. Hollingsworth really didn’t like being in a subordinate position to his son, and when he could afford it, he used local attorneys to handle his matters. But when he was in scrapes of an existential magnitude, he needed the caliber of legal talent he could hardly afford, but Garth could provide.
While the brothers, born six years apart, were never close as children, their bond later deepened as they brought their respective spouses and children together for holidays and vacations. In these endeavors, their father operated frequently as the catalyst, arranging for family cruises or renting beach houses. Since their mother’s death over a decade ago, these get-togethers frequently involved their father’s companion, Naomi, whom he had befriended at a stock market club. It was an odd place for her to be, since she had no money to invest.
Naomi and Nathan Hollingsworth seemed a good match. Both were buoyant, remarkably ageless, and adventuresome. They would return from exotic trips each competing with the other to recount their “wild” experiences, such as eating live insects in the Philippines, dancing with the locals during Octoberfest in Bavaria, and traveling by jeep in the Australian outback. Nathan and the boys’ mother had no such relationship. During his marriage, he generally did whatever he pleased without seeking the approval or collaboration of his spouse. Not surprising, Gladys Hollingsworth’s role descended into one of endless carping, objection and disapproval. But with Naomi, he played a heroic role, a mastermind of improvisation, a Cavalier of concoctions for recreation or for profit. When it came to profit, Hollingsworth’s endless stories of his entrepreneurial acumen consistently elicited enthusiastically awed responses from Naomi.
Garth and Henry had often shared their mutual assessment that their parents’ marriage seemed rather joyless, with their parents taking more satisfaction in their sons than in each other. Naomi and Nathan, by comparison, seemed to enjoy each other’s company, a dynamic fueled substantially by Naomi’s ostensive worship of Nathan. When around Nathan’s sons and their families, she would seek out those sitting quietly to engage them in a conversation about Nathan’s remarkable capabilities and charm. She was, according to her own accounts, the envy of all her girlfriends. Not only did she extol Nathan’s business acumen, but also his prowess in the bedroom, frequently using the phrase, “he can really rock the four-poster.” Hollingsworth’s sons and their families tolerated Naomi’s idiosyncrasies because of the obvious happiness she brought to the patriarch of the family, but it didn’t stop them from deriding her cloying behavior or tiresome loquaciousness in whispered conversations.
Sitting in the passenger seat as his brother drove the Mercedes, Garth asked, “How’s Naomi dealing with all this?”
“As you would expect, she’s a mess. Actually, she’s been a mess for weeks sitting in the hospital room watching Dad’s body blow up with fluids. She hasn’t really been crying much, just endless chatter.”
“Has she been feeling sorry for herself?” asked Garth reaching for another Kleenex.
“No, not really. She just keeps repeating what a wonderful man Dad was. You know, ‘He was such a genius.’ ‘No one had a better understanding of the stock market.’ And of course, she must have said a thousand times, ‘They broke the mold after they made that man.’ Beats the hell out of me, if she thought he was that great, why she would never marry him.”
Garth shook his head. “I know he wanted her to marry him, but she had this curious need for privacy. She’d stay with Dad for weeks at his condo, then go to her own apartment for a few nights. Maybe she was afraid she’d have to take care of him if he became an invalid. She’s quite a bit younger than Dad.”
The Hollingsworth boys arrived at their late father’s condominium just after five o’clock. Having been staying there intermittently since Hollingsworth was admitted to the hospital, Henry knew the location of the liquor cabinet and had even replenished the supply a few times. Without hesitation or ceremony, he prepared a shaker of vodka martinis. Garth had once been a scotch drinker, but lately, he only rarely had even a glass of wine. Henry knew we could tempt his brother with vodka if he employed an overture suggesting that, at a time like this, he didn’t want to drink alone.
There being hardly a more way weighty reason than a parent’s death to join together in drink, Garth, of course, obliged his brother, but not without some quibbling. “Vodka was originally a drink of peasants. It’s fermented from anything available, including wood pulp and the byproducts of oil refining. It’s not even aged. In the United States most vodka is produced from grain alcohol from major suppliers like Arthur Daniels Midland. Scotch, on the other hand, is culled by malt masters from casks as it ages. At a time like this, we should really drink scotch like gentlemen.”
“Garth, I drank all the damn scotch. And the crap dad had here certainly wasn’t aged. For now, we’ll drink some vodka, and when we go out to dinner, you can order any scotch you damn well please.”
The brothers sat in silence on the balcony overlooking the palm tree encircled swimming pool. A few families were wrapping up their late afternoon swim, and children were being swathed in colorful towels by mothers as fathers collected up the pool toys and flotation devices.
Garth sipped his vodka, and after a few minutes, the satisfying experience made him realize that until his father was buried, his brother would not be drinking alone. Looking at the families at the pool, he whispered, “He was a good father. You know, he once told me that he wanted to leave us a million dollars apiece. It probably had something to do with living through the Great Depression—he measured everything in dollars: loyalty, love, devotion. . .”
Henry coughed uncomfortably. “While I’ve been staying here, I’ve been going through Dad’s computer to get the documentation ready for his estate lawyer. I know you’ll find this hard to believe, but his investment accounts have been depleted. They just have some useless options in them. He has enormous overdue balances on his credit cards, and he’s behind several lease payments on the car and the condo.”
Garth knew considerably less about computers than Henry who had been in software sales, and he felt grateful his brother had taken the initiative to survey the devastation. Garth actually considered his brother to be a capable person, but he felt Henry had been cultivated by their father to assume a role of dependency. Also, Henry not only encouraged, but frequently participated in his father’s boneheaded business endeavors. Of course, Hollingsworth would often invite Garth to join in his outlandish schemes, but Garth always demurred. Rather than participation, Garth’s place in the family had become one associated with restoration and reclamation.
Henry was having moderate difficulty restraining himself to mere sips of his martini, and his glass was almost empty. He had brought the bottle of vodka to the balcony, and he poured large amount onto the ice in the shaker. Serving himself another drink, he remarked, “There’s enough of a residue of vermouth on the ice to still call this a martini.” He took a sip and nodded as if to agree with assessment. And then he frowned. “There haven’t been any recent changes in dad’s will, have there?”
“I checked with Durban, the estate lawyer, and everything is just as he originally set it up right after up mom died. You and I are the only beneficiaries. I suppose he could have established some joint accounts with Naomi, and if he did, she would be the surviving owner.”
Henry, well into finishing his second drink, looked down at the pool where the shade of the setting sun created long shadows. “He had a joint brokerage account with Naomi at Citibank. In his computer he named it, ‘Investment Club.’ It has about six dollars in it. Eight months ago, it had almost twelve thousand, but he made several transfers to his own checking account. Maybe that’s Jason’s concern.”
“Jason wants to talk to us?”
“Naomi’s son, the insurance broker who sells more convoluted, structured financial products than actual insurance.” Henry’s pronunciation of “con-vo-luted,” made clear his feelings about Jason’s business. “Yes, he wants to meet with us.”
Garth sighed, knowing that if his father’s actions required a defense, he would be the one called upon to offer it. “Well, we don’t want to meet him here. If he’s unhappy with whatever we tell him, we want to be the ones who end the meeting. If we meet here, we can’t just walk out.”
Henry did not know Jason well. Garth, however, had been a guest in Jason’s home several times, and he found Jason to be quite amiable. More important, Garth recognized that his father’s daily activities were monitored by Naomi, and her activities in turn were proctored by Jason. The arrangement provided Garth with peace of mind.
After pouring the melted ice water out of the shaker onto the concrete floor of the patio, Henry reloaded the shaker with more vodka. “Maybe he just wants to share his condolences, but I have a feeling Jason will argue that his mother is entitled to some part of Dad’s estate. The truth is if Dad hadn’t spent so much money traveling with Naomi, there might be something left for us to split.”
Garth had heard his brother’s grousing on this matter before and offered his usual response. “I’m just glad he enjoyed his life after mom died. Besides, his spending was not a real problem. The real truth is that dad’s understanding of investing was idiosyncratic at best. Face it, Henry, Dad was a terrible businessman.”
The next day the brothers Hollingsworth met with Jason in a windowless, dark paneled conference room at his office in a strip mall. The archaic air conditioner embedded into the wall created an annoying reverberating whir that operated as an obstacle to quiet conversation. Like most tightly sealed, air-conditioned rooms in tropical climates, the conference room had a distinct oxygenated, but ironically, stale aroma. The plastic ficus plant added nothing to the ambience.
Henry and Garth took their seats on one side of the table and waited for Jason to speak.
On the other side of the table, Jason sat with a legal pad scribbled with notes. He looked down, studying his scrawling handwriting. Then he spoke without looking up. “Henry, Garth, I am sorry for your loss. Nathan was a wonderful man, and my family was very close to him. . .”
Garth folded his hands and placed them on the conference table. “We appreciate that your family, especially your mother, share this loss with us.”
Jason continued to look down. “We will miss him very much. He was a great source of wisdom for all of us, and we greatly admired his skills as an entrepreneur and investor. The stories he would tell us! Inspirational!” Finally, he looked up. “My mother would often say that he walked on water, which I always found interesting. I think that’s a reference to Jesus, and we’re Jewish. But that’s what my mother would say. We all enjoyed hearing about his many successes over the years. Sometimes, after dinner, up he would sip cognac and go on for an hour so about one of his many successful businesses. He was a wonderful storyteller, you know, and a great role model for my sons. They are not even in high school, and they both want to study business in college because of Nathan and the fascinating life he lived. Jacob told me he wants to be a millionaire someday, just like Nathan.” Then he added with a sly grin, “Or is it a multi-millionaire?”
Henry and Garth sat in silence, smiling politely.
Picking up a pencil, Jason nervously started to draw unintelligible images on his legal pad. Still looking down, he continued, “Well, getting back to my mother, you know, she and Nathan were like husband and wife. And well, he died rather unexpectedly. . .”
Henry could not be still. “He lived to almost eighty-seven, I hardly think. . .”
Garth put his hand on Henry’s wrist, and Henry immediately stopped mid-sentence. He had promised Garth he wouldn’t speak at all.
Jason put down is pencil, but he didn’t look up. “And you know my mother gave up working for living so she could travel with Nathan. The places they went! Germany, China, Israel, just to name a few.”
Instinctively and preemptively, Garth grasped his brother’s wrist. Both brothers knew Naomi never had a job since her husband died two years prior to meeting Hollingsworth.
Oblivious, Jason forged ahead. “Now, to my knowledge, your father’s will leaves nothing to my mother, unless it’s been amended very recently. I’m quite certain your father wanted to leave a portion of his estate to my mother.”
According to the agreed upon protocol, Garth spoke for both brothers. “You are correct. There’s been no change since shortly after our mother died. There is no provision for Naomi.” He did his best to sound consoling, as he maintained a firm grasp on his brother’s wrist.
With his eyes still fixed on the legal pad, Jason raised his head and looked first at Henry, then at Garth. The blankness in their faces compelled him to return his focus to the pad. He swallowed hard. “It seems only fair that in light of my mother’s relationship with Nathan, as well as his substantial wealth, and adding to that, the lack of financial need on the part of either of his sons, we should carve out an appropriate amount for the woman your father loved. I would be open to any fair amount.”
Releasing his brother’s wrist, Garth folded his hands on the table and lean forward. “Jason.” He paused, waiting for Jason to look up. When Jason didn’t, he repeated, “Jason.” There was still no reaction. He shrugged his shoulders slightly, then continued, “On the surface, your request does sound reasonable. But giving even a small a portion of the estate to Naomi is problematic in several ways.”
Jason suddenly looked up. “I hope you’ll approach this matter from your heart, not from a mind numbed by legal training. I’m sure you’re a fine lawyer, but this really involves compassion, not from your head, but your heart.”
The suggestion of possible heartlessness more than slightly offended Garth. But like most attorneys, Garth had become inured to such gratuitous gibes. He stuck to his original plan, one he hadn’t even shared with his brother. “Jason, the law, compassion, and common sense, all operate together in this matter. We have a long tradition in this country, tracing back to our British heritage, that a person’s will is the final statement of his or her wishes. Much of the same reasoning goes into why we require certain contracts to be in writing. Those contracts are governed by something we call the statute of frauds. In this case, if we were to alter the disposition stated in Nathan’s will, we would abandon all standards for the accurate implementation of a person’s true intent. We would open the door to all manner of attacks on the sanctity of a will. Perhaps our Uncle Robert, Nathan’s surviving younger brother, might make an argument that Nathan loved him so dearly, he must have wanted Robert to have a share of his estate. What about the doorman at Nathan’s condo? His favorite waiter? Or hypothetically, a lover, unknown to all of us, who suddenly emerges claiming she held Nathan’s true allegiance? Open to these overtures, the conclusive disposition of a person’s final wishes would have no respect and no closure. It would be an abomination to our entire Anglo-Saxon heritage.”
Not waiting for a response, Garth stood up, signaling that Henry should do the same. Without ceremony, they left the frigid climate of the conference room. In the parking lot, they sat in silence in the sun-scorched Mercedes as the air conditioner brought the temperature to a tolerable level.
Garth waited for his brother to speak.
Henry turned to Garth. “That was a hell of a speech. Why did you have to complicate everything? You should have just told Jason that his mother isn’t getting anything under the will because Dad’s estate his worthless. Dad’s broke. They should know the simple truth. He’s not leaving anything to anyone. Now, Jason and his mother will just think you’re an arrogant asshole.”
Garth looked at his brother and nodded. “Exactly.”
Glen Weissenberger is the author of the novels Made to Measure Man, and Companions by Contract, as well as the nonfiction work Reel Magicians, which explores the art and science of magic in film. Weissenberger is a Harvard Law School graduate, and has distinguished himself as a trial lawyer, a law professor, a legal scholar and a law school dean. He currently resides in Illinois.